Forrest for the Trees

An oil field south of Odessa, TX.
An oilfield south of Odessa, Texas

The West Texas town of Barnhart has become a hot spot not only for fracking activity but also the debate over how much of a threat the process poses for groundwater supplies. Barnhart is featured in a provocative article that ran in the Guardian (following pieces in the Wall Street Journal, the Texas Tribune, and the Observer) and received a tremendous amount of attention.

Across the south-west, residents of small communities like Barnhart are confronting the reality that something as basic as running water, as unthinking as turning on a tap, can no longer be taken for granted.

Three years of drought, decades of overuse and now the oil industry’s outsize demands on water for fracking are running down reservoirs and underground aquifers. And climate change is making things worse.

I think the second paragraph is basically indisputable. The only question is how the blame gets apportioned. Not surprisingly, the oil and gas industry would like to cast itself as a bit player in the water drama.

David Blackmon, a Houston-based veteran of the oil and gas industry, writes a blog for Forbes that is always an interesting read because Blackmon is a skilled communicator and does an able job representing the industry perspective. This week, he took major issue with the Guardian piece. His main complaint, if I may try to sum it up, is that fracking is being scapegoated for water shortages in Texas and that the real culprits are uncontrollable natural factors like drought and other water users, especially agriculture (he completely ignores climate change). He writes:

This article, which unfortunately has led to a series of follow-up pieces in other media outlets, spends its first 500 words or so placing full blame for chronic water shortages in and near Barnhart, Texas on the very recent boom in the oil and gas industry.  While it finally does get around to at least indirectly admitting the real, far more complex crux of the matter in its final few paragraphs, the writer achieves her obviously intended effect of drumming up alarm about the Texas oil and gas boom.

What is the real crux of the matter?  First, take a look at a map and see where Barnhardt [sic] is actually located:  southwest of San Angelo, east of Fort Stockton, in the middle of the West Texas desert.  This area has always, since human beings began settling it, experienced water shortages and wells periodically running dry.

Not to nitpick but the town’s name is Barnhart, not Barnhardt. And it is indeed located in an area with low rainfall, about 20 inches a year. That is of course what makes water such a precious resource. In areas with abundant rainfall and groundwater resources, fracking’s impact on water supply is limited. Fracking also appears to not be a major factor when looking at its water consumption as a fraction of total use across the state or region. But that belies the precise situation in places like Barnhart or the southwestern portion of the Eagle Ford Shale, areas that suffer from the trifecta of drought (likely enhanced by climate change), historical over-pumping and the new phenomenon of heavy fracking-related water withdrawals from local aquifers.

The folks in Barnhart get this. Keith Stout, a local who services water wells in the area, told me earlier this summer he’d never seen so many wells go dry before. “We’ve never had this problem,” he said. “We’ve never run into this.” He attributed it mostly to drought but the area’s had droughts before. The kicker, he thinks, is the sudden proliferation of hydraulic fracturing in the area. “It’s like having a savings account—if you keep with drawing from it, it’s eventually gonna run out.”

Fifth, the area in and around Barnhardt, Texas is an area that is home to very heavy agricultural water usage that may well not be sustainable in the long run in such an arid part of the state.  That’s not an attack on the ag industry (which my own family has been involved in for more than 100 years), that’s just a fact that water experts all over the state have long expressed concern about.

Barnhart is in Irion County, which is sheep and goat country, not “home to very heavy agricultural water usage.” In 2011, farmers used just 315 acre-feet of groundwater for irrigation, according to the Texas Water Development Board—that’s the equivalent of just 20 or so frack jobs (assuming 5 million gallons per hydraulic fracturing treatment). There are other parts of the state where ag and oil and gas compete for the same water resources, parts of the Eagle Ford Shale, for example. Blackmon is correct that irrigated agriculture’s contribution to groundwater depletion historically far outstrips that of fracking, though I’m not sure that obviates the immediate concerns.

Finally, many of the oil and gas operators in the Barnhardt [sic] area aren’t even taking water from the shallow underground reservoirs discussed in the first 3/4ths of the Guardian piece.  They are instead drilling deeper wells, often into semi-brackish or brackish formations that are unsuitable for drinking or agricultural uses.  Nowhere does the Guardian mention that reality.

This is a valid point and I really wish we had better data on the source of water used in fracking. The best estimates come from a 2011-2012 UT-Austin study. For the sector of the Permian Basin around Midland the authors estimated that roughly 30 percent of the water used in fracking was brackish. About 68 percent was freshwater. They project that brackish water use will grow alongside a ramp-up in production but freshwater use will remain “fairly stable” at 10-15,000 acre-feet per year.

Blackmon is certainly cognizant that the status quo is not going to fly and is likely an invitation for more regulation.

So in order to maintain the public’s confidence and ultimately its license to operate, the industry is obligated to continue to find ways to conserve and recycle water, along with creative ways to source it.

Fortunately, a lot of very smart people at many of the industry’s most innovative companies are involved in doing exactly that.

Trust us—we shall see if that cuts it.

The Lessons from West

8678460016_11b97df0bd_b
Gov. Rick Perry visits with first responders in West, TX.

More than three months have passed since the West fertilizer plant caught fire and exploded, killing 15 and injuring more than 200. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about how the tragedy occurred and the regulatory failings that contributed to the disaster.

The revelations have come in dribs and drabs, from media reports to hearings at the Legislature and Congress. It’s difficult to pinpoint one thing that could have prevented the disaster, but that’s in part because there were so many holes in the system and so much blame to go around at the local, state and federal level. But given the evidence, I think it’s clear that West wasn’t an unavoidable act of God. It was a man-made industrial crime. A few examples:

• The West Fertilizer Company didn’t tell local emergency responders until 2012 that it was holding hazardous chemicals, six years after it started handling large quantities of ammonium nitrate.

• But even after the company told a local emergency-planning committee about the ammonium nitrate, the first responders in McLennan County never trained for a fertilizer explosion. The West Volunteer Fire Department never received the federally required report from the company about the contents of the plant.

• Without training or knowledge of the risks, the firefighters—many of them volunteers who died in the blast—were unprepared.

• Like 70 percent of Texas’ 254 counties, McLennan County was prohibited until 2010 from adopting a fire code that would set standards for buildings and provide for inspections.

• Texas allows fertilizer plants to operate without any liability insurance.

• The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hadn’t inspected the plant since 1985; the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had inspected it once, in 2006, for odor complaints; and the Office of the State Chemist had inspected the plant four times in 2012 but only to see if the fertilizer was secure from thieves or vandals.

• For more than a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency ignored a recommendation from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to classify ammonium nitrate as an “extremely hazardous” chemical, which would require the company to have a detailed disaster-prevention and emergency-response plan.

Imagine for a second that the West fertilizer plant had regular inspections backed up by steep fines; that state or federal agencies had made sure the paperwork had gotten to the local firefighters; that the community had been informed of the risks of the plant. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that the loss of life could’ve been diminished, maybe prevented altogether? That’s the conclusion reached by the Waco Tribune-Herald.

“What blew a huge hole in the lives of West residents was probably preventable,” the paper editorialized in June. “As much as we all hate regulation in Texas, there are times when it’s appropriate. The lives lost and the damage left behind are surely evidence of that.”

But the response from Texas Republican leaders has been quite different. Their attitude from the get-go has been, basically, “Meh.”

Gov. Rick Perry: “[People] through their elected officials clearly send the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight.”

Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality: “We have hundreds of facilities like this across the state and fortunately they don’t explode very often.”

State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels): “I think we’re doing a good job. Just periodically something happens that’s not predictable.”

This isn’t even the usual linguistic dodge of “mistakes were made.” Some Texas leaders have responded to the West tragedy with an attitude of, essentially, “shit happens.” So far, elected leaders in Austin and Washington have done nothing to prevent future West-type disasters. The only regulatory change? The State Fire Marshal’s Office has said it might create an online database of chemical plants in Texas. Not a bad idea, but both Greenpeace and The Texas Tribune have already constructed similar sites. By leaving the obvious errors in the oversight system unaddressed, our elected leaders are accepting that such a disaster will happen again.

Regulation can be burdensome or excessive. But when dozens of lives can be saved through common-sense changes felt almost exclusively by a small number of companies, it’s worth the cost.

San Antonio City Councilwoman Elisa Chan Describes LGBT Community as “Disgusting”

The Observer talks to the Chan staffer who secretly recorded her homophobic remarks.
Elisa Chan
San Antonio City Councilwoman Elisa Chan

San Antonio is hosting a full-on freak-out over proposed changes to the city’s non-discrimination policies that would cover sexual orientation and gender identity. Christian conservatives are claiming that the revised ordinance would allow men into the women’s restroom, ban Christians from city government and infringe on their religious freedoms to be intolerant of gay people. Proponents have countered by pointing out that it does no such thing and that the current draft is similar to ordinances in Austin, Dallas, Houston and other major cities.

The pot was stirred a bit more today when a secret tape of Councilwoman Elisa Chan’s unvarnished views surfaced. In the recording, Chan describes LGBTQ people as “disgusting,” saying they shouldn’t be allowed to adopt and that homosexuality is “against nature.” Former Chan staffer James Stevens surreptitiously recorded Chan’s comments on his iPhone during a May meeting on the proposed ordinance. Stevens provided the recording to San Antonio Express-News columnist Brian Chasnoff, who published a damning article today.

At one point in the recording, amid a tittering exchange about pansexual people, Chan interjects her opinion on the nature of homosexuality.

“You know, to be quite honest, I know this is not politically correct,” she said. “I never bought in that you are born, that you are born gay. I can’t imagine it.”

As the talk shifted back to pansexual people, whose sexual orientations encompass all gender identities, Chan asks, “How can that be?”

“I will say, ‘Strip down! What equipment do you have?’” she continued. “I’m telling you. Crazy. We’re getting to crazy realm.”

Stevens agrees that it’s “politically incorrect in some circles” to claim that people choose to be gay. “The newspaper will get to you,” he warned.

Chan was evidently aware that her homophobic remarks could get her in trouble politically, and vowed to keep them under wraps in public.

“That’s why I never would say that outside because they kill me,” Chan said. “When I say that it’s … behavioral preference, they say that, ‘No, you’re born with it.’ But I never bought into that.”

I spoke with Stevens earlier today about why he decided to come forward with the recording and what he hopes to see come of it.

Stevens, who is straight but has gay friends, began working as an intern in Chan’s office in the fall of 2012 and was hired full-time on May 13. Slightly more than a week later, on May 21, the 28 year old sat in on his first staff meeting. He was in for a surprise.

“I didn’t go into it thinking I was going to record anything,” Stevens said. “What I was expecting was to discuss policy and to really get into maybe the nuanced arguments on both sides of the debate. … After a few minutes of the conversation really going toward just talking about how disgusting the [LGBTQ] community is I decided that this is something the people of San Antonio should know about, that this is what’s going on behind closed doors.”

Stevens said the conversation began with Chan asking her staff to explain what the “T” stands for in LGBT. (It stands for “transgender.”)

“Her reaction of disgust is what sparked everyone to join and talk about how disgusting it is,” Stevens said, who he was “uncomfortable” during the conversation.

“If I could say one thing to the LGBT community, I wish I could’ve been stronger during that meeting and made more of the points that in hindsight I’d like to make. But being there and especially being my first staff meting and not knowing if this is normal, I didn’t know how to behave.”

He sat on the tape for months, hoping that there would be another chance to discuss the ordinance “in a more mature way. But that never happened.”

What pushed him to finally release the audio was Chan’s unwillingness to consider that gay people might be born that way. “It’s one thing to be ignorant,” Steven saids, “and I can forgive ignorance. But willful ignorance is inexcusable, especially from a representative.”

Stevens doesn’t think Chan will vote for the ordinance now, but he hopes that it might persuade other council members to distance themselves from Chan and her position. He also hopes that the LGBT community will be heartened to know they have straight allies in government who are willing to stand up for equality.

“There are people out there that believe in equality who are going to support you and are going to make sacrifices to do the right thing. There aren’t many of us, but I felt like I was in a position to help and so I did.”

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels

Today in your dog-bites-man news: Texas Attorney General and governor hair apparent Greg Abbott appeared at an Austin business today to complain about Obamacare. The event was sponsored by Americans for Prosperity-Texas, a corporate-funded conservative group that’s taking on Enroll America, a non-profit group that’s going door to door to coax uninsured people to sign up for insurance under Obamacare. In an email yesterday, Peggy Venable of AFP-Texas described Enroll America as “a new group that’s includes [sic] several health insurance industry executives on its board along with former Obama operatives.”

Like every other Texas GOP politician running for statewide office, Abbott has enlisted Obama as a campaign opponent in the absence of a Democratic opponent. On the “issues” page of his campaign site, he puts “end[ing] Obamacare” at the top of the list. Today, he said, “We need to do all we can to get rid of Obamacare and replace it with a better law,” according to San Antonio Express-News reporter Peggy Fikac, but dodged a question about whether he approves of Ted Cruz’s plan to shut down the government to defund the health care law.

Abbott spoke at Texas Mailhouse, a bulk-mailing firm that, just coincidentally I’m sure, does a brisk business in sending out mailers for Republican politicians, including Abbott. Since 2000, Texas Mailhouse has been paid nearly $538,000 by politicians—almost exclusively Republican—and business PACs, according to Texans for Public Justice. Texas Mailhouse owner Bob Thomas also runs Thomas Graphics, a Republican direct-mail firm that has collected more than $458,000 from Abbott’s campaigns since 2000, according to the Texas Tribune.

Meanwhile, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was at Austin City Hall drumming up support for the Affordable Care Act. She hinted that the Obama administration is open to working out a compromise on Medicaid expansion, which Rick Perry, Greg Abbott and most GOP-ers in Texas have rejected, leaving an estimated 1.5 million Texans uninsured.

“We are eager to have discussions with Texas about a program that could look uniquely Texan,” the Texas Tribune quoted her as saying. “But as far as I know, those conversations, at least with the state officials, are not taking place right now.”

David Dewhurst
Patrick Michels

Poop-gate is the scandal that just won’t die. Here’s the latest from the shit-hits-the-fan department: The Observer was one of six media outlets that requested information from the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) after the agency claimed that protestors had tried to bring “suspected” jars of feces and urine into the Capitol during the abortion debate on July 12. DPS and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst—who claimed that he “saw” bags of feces and jars of urine and then later backtracked to say he’d only been told about them—haven’t produced any evidence that protestors had urine and feces.

Last week, DPS informed the Observer and other media organizations that it wouldn’t be releasing any information and was seeking a ruling from the Texas Attorney General. It’s not unusual for government agencies to withhold information they claim isn’t public or to ask the AG for an open records ruling. However, DPS’ letter to AG Greg Abbott was unusually broad, citing every exception contained in the Texas Public Information Act, including ones that apply specifically to library records, appraisal districts and no-call lists.

But today, responding to an Observer request for additional information from DPS about its filings with the Texas Attorney General, the agency reversed course. In a letter to the AG, DPS said it was “withdrawing its request for a ruling” and “will release records” requested by the Observer and other media—a highly unusual move for a major agency. In a letter, DPS said it would contact me “about releasing the information” by August 23.

Houston attorney Brian Trachtenberg wrote to DPS last week that it had violated the Public Information Act by waiting more than 10 business days to respond to the Poopgate requests and must immediately cough up the records.

“DPS’s attempt to hide behind the AG to avoid producing the requested information, however is fatally flawed,” he writes in a July 30 letter to DPS.

Side-note: Republicans have complained that Poopgate is silly. Here’s the thing: This is a ridiculous scandal. And it’s one that exists (and continues on and on) because of DPS and Dewhurst. In the heat of an unprecedented moment at the Texas Capitol, the state law enforcement agency issued a press release accusing citizens of bringing jars of “suspected” feces and urine into the Capitol but has been unable to point to any evidence to back up its claims. None of the DPS troopers interviewed by The Texas Tribune claim to have seen the “suspected” jars. David Dewhurst claimed to have personally seen “bags” of feces but then later changed his story. Now, DPS has been uncharacteristically sloppy in handling a legally-binding request for more information. Something stinks.

Kate Galbraith
Texas Tribune

This is Part Eleven in an occasional series of Q&As with Texans involved in issues of the environment and energy. (Read Part One with Bee Moorhead here, Part Two with Andy Sansom here, Part Three with Katherine Hayhoe here, Part Four with Patrick Kennedy here, Part Five with Michael Banks here, Part Six with Gabriel Eckstein here, Part Seven with John Nielsen-Gammon here, Part Eight with Tad Patzek here, Part Nine with Charles Porter here and Part 10 with Carlos Perez de Alejo here.)

In Part Eleven, I talk with Kate Galbraith, who covered energy and environment for the Texas Tribune from 2010 to till just a few weeks ago when she left for the (literally) greener pastures of California.

Previously she reported on clean energy for The New York Times from 2008 to 2009, serving as the lead writer for the Times‘ Green blog. She began her career at The Economist in 2000 and spent 2005 to 2007 in Austin as the magazine’s Southwest correspondent.

Evan Smith of the Tribune described Kate this way in a farewell post: “So smart, so fair, so thorough, so dryly witty, so mature and measured in her outlook on the world and her approach to journalism, Kate has been highly respected member of the Capitol press corps, a valued colleague and a great friend.”

She is co-author of brand-new The Great Texas Wind Rush, a book about how the oil and gas state won the race to wind power.

**

Texas Observer: What do you rate as the most pressing environmental issues in Texas?

Kate Galbraith: The most obvious one is water. I don’t think people really appreciate how severe this drought is. The vast majority of the state just hasn’t gotten the rain it needs, for three years running. In Austin, for example, that means that the two big reservoirs, Lakes Travis and Buchanan, are closing in on record lows. They’ve got about 700,000 acre-feet of water in them now. And they’ve been ticking down 1,000 to 2,000 acre-feet per day over the summer, when evaporation is intense. So people can do the math on how long that supply can last if it doesn’t rain.

And it’s not just the reservoirs and city water-use. It’s the rivers, and the plants and animals and ecosystems that are hurt by the low flows. That’s why we launched a series on rivers in the Texas Tribune — to bring more attention to the ecological issues associated with the ongoing drought. Add in climate change and continued population growth, and the problems are likely to intensify.

As for other environmental concerns, you’ve got a variety associated with the industrial activity in Texas. Refineries, chemical plants, power plants, oil and gas drilling, mining operations — we’ve got it all. Plus nonstop land development. All of this creates serious issues ranging from air and pollution to waste disposal to continuing fragmentation of the land. There are stories on environmental concerns in probably every town, and I don’t think they get nearly as much attention as they deserve.

 

TO: To follow-up on the problem of the drought and water scarcity. I think it’s widely recognized among the business, political and media cognoscenti that dwindling water supplies could severely impact the Texas economy if something isn’t done. And, therefore, we’ve seen the Legislature, despite a preponderance of fiscal hawks, pony up $2 billion to fund the state water plan (pending voter approval in November, of course). But I don’t get the sense that ordinary Texans rate water supply problems as very high on a list of priorities. Polling by the Tribune and UT indicate the same thing. Why do you think that is? And do you think that citizens may eventually focus more on water issues?

KG: You’re right. Plenty of people don’t seem to care that much about water. People living in the cities, that is. Farmers anxiously watch the skies, of course, as they’ve always done.

And the reason, colloquial as it sounds, is that when people turn on the tap, water comes out. So it doesn’t seem like a problem. And to the extent it is a problem, people expect their government to fix it quickly and without fuss. People take water for granted. Available and cheap, please. I got a wonderful comment once from the chief financial officer of the San Antonio Water System. He said, “We have people come in and say: ‘I’m really struggling to pay my water bill. Just a minute, let me answer my cellphone.’ ” His point was that water bills may run about the same as cable bills or cellphone bills, but people feel entitled to cheap water.

Getting Texans more engaged is going to be hard, realistically. It seems to me that people are a bit silo-ed into their own concerns these days, and it’s tough to break out of that. Obviously if a place runs out of water, that’s a jolt. Hopefully it won’t come to that. Andy Sansom of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment has the best answer on the “what to do” question. His line is: Take a kid fishing. Help them appreciate their natural environment. One day, those kids will be making the decisions.

 

TO: I wholeheartedly endorse the ‘take a kid fishing’ advice. I’m glad my dad did!

Let’s talk about climate change. I honestly don’t even know where to begin with such a sweeping topic, so let start with this: Why do you think the business and political leaders in Texas either ignore anthropogenic climate change or write it off as a scientific hoax?

KG: Whew, talk about a mega-question! But I’ll give it a shot.

Texans, in my experience, do believe climate change is happening. Any farmer will tell you that his growing season starts earlier than his grandfather’s. But as you alluded, it’s the human-caused part that trips people up.

It’s worth remembering that years ago, the write-off of anthropogenic warming wasn’t quite so aggressive. The first President Bush, a Texan of sorts, actually went to the global-warming conference in Rio in 1992. And if you look at Gov. Perry’s news releases from 10 years ago, when he visited wind farms, he would talk about how much carbon-dioxide they saved. Don’t think he does that now.

So what changed? Well, I’m sure an academic could give you a more profound answer, but my off-the-cuff take is that the small-government movement really took root. Things were trending that way for awhile, and then the Tea Party solidified it. And if you think about it, climate change—and the actions we’d need to take to combat it—has become, in some people’s minds, sort of the ultimate proxy for big government. It’s a huge issue that can directly impact how we live. So that became a whipping-boy.

And because climate change is so broad and abstract, it’s easy to dispute elements within it. Like — warming has hit a plateau of sorts, and scientists don’t know what the deal is with clouds. So then it becomes easy to launch off these sub-elements to question the whole theory.

Also, Texas thinks of itself as a can-do state. If there’s a problem, we want to fix it. And climate change by definition is a problem that Texas can’t, by itself, solve. Plus, of course, addressing climate change would hit Texas and its fossil fuel industry right in the pocketbook.

 

TO: On that basis, do you think Texas journalists should cover climate change differently than, say, California or other states where it’s out of the mainstream to deny the science? What was your approach during your time in Texas?

KG: I’ve always been interested in the approach of John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist out of A&M. He believes that humans contribute to climate change, but he focuses on the fact that climate change is happening and what it means, rather than the cause. And I think that’s where the Texas conversation is at right now, for better or worse.

I’d love to hear from other journalists on this. But I don’t think we need to cover climate change any differently than in, say, California. We have to be careful to provide balanced reporting, but that’s true anywhere and on any subject

If anything, the questions about climate change in Texas just add up to one more angle to cover — and sort of a fun one, I might add. How do Texas government agencies, and businesses, think about climate change? Do they put it in their reports? How do Texas politicians handle climate change in their campaigns? What’s Greg Abbott’s record against the EPA? Texas as an industrial state could feel a big impact from federal regulations aimed at combating climate change — so how will those industries react, and be affected? That’s going to be an interesting story, assuming these regulations go through.

People sometimes asked me, how come you didn’t mention climate change in this or that drought story? And the answer is, I do mention it in the broad stories, and I’ve written pieces squarely on climate change and the future of Texas. But if it’s a more micro-story, focused on a specific aspect of the drought, then a lot of times I try to keep the story tight.

 

TO: But what’s different about Texas versus much of the rest of the nation (California included) is that elected officials here routinely deny that climate change is a) happening or b) that it’s caused largely by human activity. Gov. Perry went so far as to suggest in his book Fed Up! that the planet is undergoing a global cooling trend. Texas Railroad Commission Chairman, and attorney general candidate, Barry Smitherman just today was tweeting about “the myth of carbon pollution.”

So, I guess to reframe the question: Do journalists in Texas (or anywhere else with a high degree of climate denial) have any obligation to directly confront such views by, for example, counterposing the views of politicians with climate science?

KG: This is a broad debate in the news media, and it goes well beyond climate change. The question is, when politicians say things that aren’t accurate, how far do you go toward correcting them?

I’m going to defer to the editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, since we’re getting a bit beyond my pay-grade. Asked about this in 2012 by the then-Times Public Editor, Arthur Brisbane, she wrote:

“[P]roviding facts to challenge false or misleading assertions isn’t just part of political coverage. We do it routinely in policy stories from Washington and business stories from Wall Street. We do it in science coverage, too — for example, we constantly point out the scientific consensus on climate change. Of course, some facts are legitimately in dispute, and many assertions, especially in the political arena, are open to debate. We have to be careful that fact-checking is fair and impartial, and doesn’t veer into tendentiousness.”

So, yes, a corrective is useful when the facts on climate change or whatever else aren’t right. You saw StateImpact Texas do that with Barry Smitherman, the Railroad Commission chairman running for attorney general, just recently.

I’ll also say that opinion writers, as well as objective reporters, have an opportunity to keep politicians on the straight and narrow. And frankly I wish the opinion writing in Texas newspapers were stronger. The Observer is already there, to be sure, but the Houston Chronicle just lost Loren Steffy, their energy columnist. Texas environmental issues deserve more attention.

 

TO: You and co-author Asher Price just published The Great Texas Wind Rush, a book on the unlikely emergence of Texas as the leader in wind energy. (I highly encourage everyone to purchase and read the book!) I think a lot of non-Texans are surprised to learn that Texas has more installed wind capacity than any other state. But this is not an accident, as your book shows. What were the essential ingredients that made us the national leader in wind? And what is wind’s future (and solar’s) in a state that is also undergoing an enormous boom in oil and gas production?

KG: Weirdly, I think Texas’ history of oil and gas production had a lot to do with preparing it for wind. Oil meant that landowners were receptive to the concept of energy royalties, and power lines that weren’t filled with natural-gas-generated electricity could be filled with wind. The fact that it’s a big, rural state meant that there are a lot of self-sufficient tinkerers in the hinterlands. A few of them turned to wind turbines, and that was enough.

Wind farms will continue to go up in Texas for the next few years, especially in the Panhandle, the windiest but least accessible region of Texas, and along the coast. A key federal tax credit is scheduled to expire at the end of the year, so that’s something to watch. People ask me how much more wind can go on the Texas grid–right now it supplies about 9 percent of the grid’s energy. I don’t have a scientific answer, but I’ll be surprised if it climbs above 12 percent or so in the near term.

Solar is growing, but it’s going to have a tougher time. For wind, a lot of things came together, not least that the politics were right for a renewable energy mandate in 1999. The politics are pretty far from that now, and providing any special incentives for solar seems off the table. The oil and gas boom means that Texas is going to be producing plenty of energy for the foreseeable future, so renewables become a bit less exciting. There’s already been some tension between natural gas and renewables in the realm of the power grid, so we’ll see how all that plays out.

 

TO: Last question: What are you going to miss about covering Texas and what are you looking forward to in California (other than presumably not suffering through any more 100-plus days!)?

KG: There is no better place to be a journalist than Texas. The state is fascinating, important and weirdly neglected by the national press. In terms of covering energy, Texas has it all–oil and gas, coal, nuclear, wind and even occasional glimpses of energy efficiency. The water story is compelling too. Drought is one problem that the state can’t just build its way out of, and it has been mesmerizing to watch this bigger-is-better, we-love-freedom state grapple with the necessity of conservation.

But probably the best element of covering Texas is the people. I found Texans to be friendly and fairly open to the press. I’d much rather talk with a Texas rancher than a suit in a New York office flanked by three public relations professionals.

Now, right, I’ve moved to California. (Sorry, Gov. Perry—it’s not all the other way.) I won’t tell you how nice the weather is. I’m looking forward to freelancing on energy/environment topics (and maybe a few others too), and also to relaxing. I’m headed to my favorite mountain range in the world, the Sierra Nevada, tomorrow. Adios!

Thanks Forrest. This has been fun.

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Gov. Rick Perry visits with first responders in West, TX.

“For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong.”
—H.L. Mencken

Maybe they’re still drunk from celebrating Milton Friedman’s birthday, because one of the deep thinkers at the Texas Public Policy Foundation has published a good old-fashioned, he-must-be-high howler over at Texas Monthly this week. The premise of the piece by TPPF’s John Daniel Davidson, “Helping Hands Off,” is that Texas conservatives should be thrilled that the Obama administration denied the state’s request for a major disaster declaration in West, where an April fire and explosion at a fertilizer facility killed 15 and injured an estimated 300 or more people. Just this morning, however, the feds reversed course and announced that they would approve the request and pony up the full requested amount.

If that were all, we could let it lie. However, Davidson goes much, much further. Basically, his argument is that government is bad, the federal government is really bad and disaster recovery efforts should be largely left to the locals or the magic of tax cuts (yes, really… more on that later).

The article is problematic, at best, on about nine different levels. First, Davidson doesn’t bother to explore whether the long and growing list of oversight and regulatory failures might have contributed to the disaster. You’d think a free-market think tank obsessed with bloodless cost-benefits analyses would explore whether *avoiding* the destruction of hundreds of homes, schools, apartment buildings and businesses might be cheaper than paying for the clean-up.

Notably, Davidson doesn’t cite a figure for the number of injuries—an estimated 300 or more—perhaps to avoid the niggling problem that the state of Texas, unlike that bastion of overzealous governance known as Oklahoma, doesn’t have a system to count its dead or injured. Like anyone with eyes in their head or a heart in their chest, Davidson praises the first responders who lost their lives in the West disaster and the outpouring of support from citizens. But unlike even Rick Perry and Greg Abbott, Davidson believes that government disaster aid displaces local, volunteer recovery efforts. (This formula is strikingly similar to TPPF’s notion that the problem with the American health care system is that government insurance programs “crowd out” the free market.)

But the West explosion has also launched another sort of debate, about the role of government in the lives of its citizens.

In the wake of such a disaster, whom should we turn to for help? In the immediate aftermath, West became a town of volunteers. Neighbors and local churches provided shelter, cleared debris, and donated food, clothing, and counseling. Townspeople took a fierce pride in caring for their own. “These are our neighbors. They are coming to help,” Waco police sergeant William Patrick Swanton told reporters. “You will find that in Texas. You will find that across the United States. We put everything aside when it comes to these types of situations.”

Quoting a government employee, a cop, to make your point that the “townspeople” (“townspeople,” really?—they are not extras in a Tennessee Williams play) don’t need no stinkin’ help from the government: awesome.

Shaming the president might get the conservative base fired up, but it’s the wrong way to think about our relationship to Washington—as if the people of West should rely on the feds to make things right. They shouldn’t—and they aren’t.

Does it matter at all that the West mayor was steaming mad at the Obama administration for not ponying up the full amount requested by the state? He didn’t see it as a “handout”—no one does when they’ve lost everything.

Three days after the explosion, nearly one thousand volunteers had been registered, three warehouses were processing donated goods, and the Red Cross was asking people to hold off on donations because it was inundated. First Baptist Church in West has spent the spring and summer knocking down damaged homes with borrowed construction equipment and volunteer labor, using hundreds of thousands in donated funds to pay for fuel and debris removal. (And let’s not forget that the firefighters killed in the explosion were themselves volunteers.)

Well, of course. That’s what communities do in a disaster. They rally together to a common purpose. The fact that it’s so common and yet so extraordinary is a testament to our resiliency and it is strangely in these moments of suffering that our hope for humanity is restored. Beneath those clichéd “hero” stories that Anderson Cooper is fond of lies something profound: Amazement that any one of us, given the horrible opportunity, could rise to the occasion.

So, of course we turn to each other, first, almost certainly to our families and our neighbors. But does that somehow exclude government, that larger political community?

The question is what happens when the cameras go home and a community is left with the long and tedious task of rebuilding schools, public infrastructure, homes and roads over the course of months or years? The long-term disaster recovery component is often the most difficult and costly and requires the kind of coordination and focus offered by government. A church disbursing “hundreds of thousands in donated funds” (dollars?), while noble and necessary, is not going to cut it. Remember the outpouring of donations following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti? How’s that country, with its lack of government and collections of NGOs, doing three years later?

Long-term disaster recovery is a tricky business and Texas has done a poor job in equitably and efficiently flowing federal funds to the victims of natural disasters. It took six years, after Hurricane Rita in 2005, to get some people back in their homes. A similar story has played out in the five years since Hurricane Ike struck Galveston in 2008.

But Davidson’s task here is not to think through these thorny questions but to fit his agenda to the particulars of West.

The response of this community underscores a fundamental truth about democracy: civil society contracts in proportion to the growth of government. And where there is less of the latter, there is more of the former.

Here’s where that logic leads… A solution to pay for disasters.

And maybe Perry should make good on his commitment to pass $1.8 billion in tax cuts so Texans and Texas businesses have more to spare when disasters strike and their neighbors are in need.

Where to even start with this? Tax cuts as disaster relief? Is this some sort-of sick joke? Did Arthur Laffer take up trepanning and find another napkin to scribble on? Davidson’s theory of human nature is that people have an infinite capacity for helping each other voluntarily but will refuse to open up their checkbooks if not afforded tax relief through their businesses.

And here’s the real rub: the Legislature *did* pass more than $1 billion in tax cuts, $630 million of which came in the form of cuts to the state’s business franchise tax. Perry signed that budget into law in June. So I guess TPPF’s corporate donors are writing some big checks to the West recovery fund, right?

Rita DeShannon, a special investigator with Texas Child Protective Services, was fired today after the agency was alerted to racially inflammatory remarks on her personal Twitter account. Under the account @TexasPeanut, DeShannon tweeted frequently during the past few weeks on George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, using the term “nigartards” and calling for white people to “arm themselves.”

DeShannon has worked for CPS since 2003, first as a foster care worker, then as an investigative caseworker and finally as an Ellis County-based special investigator since 2010, according to the agency. According to her LinkedIn profile, DeShannon is also a law-enforcement officer, who worked as a detective in the Monroe, Louisiana, Police Department. She also owns a company, AAA Texas Process Service, that serves court papers for the Texas Supreme Court, according to public records.

Until she changed it yesterday, her Twitter profile identified her as a member of the “Oathkeepers,” a far-right organization largely comprised of cops and military personnel who promise to disobey orders they consider unconstitutional. DeShannon didn’t respond to an email from the Observer seeking comment.

The Observer contacted CPS on Tuesday about DeShannon’s Twitter account. Patrick Crimmins, a spokesperson for the Department of Family and Protective Services, said the agency wasn’t aware of DeShannon’s inflammatory racial views or her Twitter account. On Wednesday morning, the agency dismissed her. In a letter recommending her dismissal, CPS administrators wrote that her “comments were inappropriate and inflammatory” and “violated her ethical responsibilities to the children and families we serve.” In one tweet on July 15th, DeShannon complains, “I’m really f#cking tired of being politically correct for nothing after all these years!” Her most recent tweet, from two days ago: “I’m not racist..I’ll kill any color of person who tries to kill me first!”

Oiling the Skids for Chevron in Houston

Perry's Texas Enterprise Fund coughs up $12 million for Chevron.
An artist rendering depicts a new Chevron tower (left).
An artist rendering depicts a new Chevron tower (left).

Chevron is one of the world’s largest corporations, earning more than $240 billion in revenue last year. CEO John Watson raked in almost $25 million in compensation in 2011. And as of July, Chevron is the proud recipient of a $12 million grant from the state of Texas. For most people, or even a small company, $12 million is an enormous amount of money. For Chevron, it’s about what the company earns every four hours.

The $12 million in public funds came from the Texas Enterprise Fund, the stated purpose of which is to create jobs and spur investment. But critics have accused Gov. Rick Perry, who oversees the fund out of his office along with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, of using the $500 million pool as a slush fund to reward allies and campaign contributors. But there’s another nagging question hanging over the Texas Enterprise Fund: Does it actually create jobs? Is it really a “deal-closer,” or just a way for corporations to wring more money out of taxpayers?

The Chevron example is instructive. The $12 million grant is earmarked for a 50-story office tower Chevron plans to build in downtown Houston as part of the company’s expansion plan. The project will create 1,752 jobs, according to the governor’s office. But would Chevron have created those jobs regardless of winning a grant from the Enterprise Fund?

Chevron has had plans for the property for at least five years. In 2008, Chevron announced that it would purchase 1600 Louisiana, the block where the 50-story tower will be located. “It leaves us flexibility and options for the future,” Edward Spaulding, a Chevron spokesman, told the Houston Chronicle at the time.

In June 2011, Chevron purchased Four Allen Center, a 50-story, 1.3-million-square-foot tower that was once Enron’s headquarters, for $340 million. It did so without help from the state.

“Chevron is pocketing millions in taxpayer handouts to do something they would do anyway,” said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice. “This is pure handout. That incentives are needed to induce behavior is just a charade.”

Asked what locations other than Houston Chevron had considered, a company spokesman responded by email: “It was determined that building a new building downtown is the best way to accommodate our business growth and expanding [the] Houston workforce. Chevron’s demand for office space in downtown Houston has exceeded the availability of owned space.”

Well, bully for them. But the question remains, if the state of Texas hadn’t coughed up $12 million, would Chevron have packed up and moved somewhere else? It doesn’t seem likely.

To access the state grant, Chevron also had to line up an incentive from local government. City council members have hardly addressed the “but-for” question. In a city council meeting on July 24, the council members fell all over themselves to lavish praise on Chevron and express support for a $2.7 million tax abatement for Chevron’s property. “They deserve our help on this,” said councilman Jack Christie, citing the company’s charitable projects.

Council member Melissa Noriega had the most expansive explanation. “This is exactly the kind of project that is appropriate where we take local match and leverage that to a much large amount of money that’s given by another entity that benefits Houston, that benefits our jobs, that improves our skyline, that makes a real opportunity. As we talk about the role of government there are places where it’s appropriate for us to intervene. This is that kind of thing.”

The council has largely talked around the nagging “but-for” question. The Observer put the question to James Rodriguez, the councilman whose district encompasses Chevron’s downtown Houston headquarters. “I didn’t have those particular discussions but we trust our economic development team, our staffers to look at the proposals and again they look at them case by case. They provide information to council and then they make their recommendations.”

The Houston Chronicle, while criticizing the incentives as “a race to the bottom … without any thorough cost-benefit analysis,” all but conceded that the city would greenlight the subsidies and encouraged the council to squeeze more amenities out of Chevron.

Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is the frontrunner to replace Perry as governor, has already expressed ambivalence about the benefits of the Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund. “What I can say is that I don’t want to be involved in government picking between winners and losers,” he told the Associated Press in July.

Brian Fontenot, who earned his Ph.D. in quantitative biology from UT Arlington, worked with Kevin Schug, UT Arlington associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and a team of researchers to analyze samples from 100 private water wells
UT-Arlington
Brian Fontenot, who earned his Ph.D. in quantitative biology from UT Arlington, worked with Kevin Schug, UT Arlington associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and a team of researchers to analyze samples from 100 private water wells

Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington have found elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in private drinking water wells near natural gas wells in North Texas’ Barnett Shale. The scientists analyzed samples from 100 wells, both inside and outside of the Barnett Shale. Their results were published online today in Environmental Science & Technology.

Some wells were near to natural gas production sites; some were not. Although arsenic was found in 99 of the 100 wells, levels were “significantly higher in active [gas] extraction areas.” Twenty-nine of the wells registered arsenic concentrations above levels that the EPA considers safe. One sample, near a natural gas site, was “almost 18 times higher” than levels found in the Barnett Shale prior to the fracking boom as well as the maximum arsenic concentration found in a well outside the active drilling zone.

The findings are likely to fuel continued debate over whether fracking is polluting drinking water. As the oldest major shale play, the Barnett Shale is of particular importance as scientists, regulators and citizens grapple with fracking’s impacts.

The authors, however, are careful to say that the cause of the contamination can’t be definitively pinpointed. Potential causes could include: mechanical failures such as faulty gas well casings or fluid spills; mechanical disturbances from drilling; or dropping water tables from overpumping and drought, (although aquifers in the area are currently rising and the historical data doesn’t show spikes in contaminant levels during past droughts). And like good scientists they call for more research.

“This study alone can’t conclusively identify the exact causes of elevated levels of contaminants in areas near natural gas drilling, but it does provide a powerful argument for continued research,” said Brian Fontenot, a UT Arlington graduate and lead author on the new paper.

The Texas oil and gas industry and politicians insist that groundwater pollution isn’t linked to fracking. There’s a grain of truth to this assertion. Despite an astonishing increase in fracking activity in Texas, research is sparse.

“Despite a number of recent investigations,” the authors note, “the impact of natural gas extraction on groundwater quality remains poorly understood.”

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